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Neptune as used by the Aeronavale - pic by Frank TogherParis's Musée de l’air et de l’espace

Tom McGhee takes a look at France's premier aviation museum. Photography by the author and Frank Togher (where credited).

France’s national Air and Space Museum is located at Le Bourget Airport in Paris. Le Bourget is famous for its bi-annual Air Salon, which is a shop window for prospective aviation customers along the lines of SBAC Farnborough in the UK. The airport itself is located in the suburb of Dugny, in the Northeast of the French Capital city, and only a twenty-minute taxi ride from Charles de Gaulle airport.

A bleak afternoon presented me with an opportunity to re-visit this museum and there have been some major changes since I last looked round it in March 1988. One thing that seems to still be welcoming is the extremely reasonable entrance fee of a few Euros (around £5.00), which these days seems pretty good value. In front of the main entrance is an eye-catching display of three Fouga Magisters in 'Patrouille de France' colours mounted in a bomburst arrangement. The aircraft had previously been individually identifiable by the colour of the 'smoke' pole upon which they were mounted, but these poles are now all the same colour (for the curious, red was 29, white was 26, and blue was 23), making easy identification somewhat harder.

Wartime exhibits
Pfalz 2690

The museum is divided into different areas, each representing a different era or theme, and I started my visit in La Grande Galerie, which traces aviation from the beginning through to the First World War. The exhibits are generally original aircraft with only a very few replicas, and they are without exception immaculately preserved. Many of the exhibits have posed mannequins around them and there are clear and accurate descriptive notices at each aircraft with historic and technical details. Even my basic grasp of French was sufficient enough to glean pertinent information from these boards. I concentrated generally on the military types, and overall the museum is probably weighted slightly in favour of military aircraft versus civil, but there is still plenty here for visitors of that persuasion. So after passing some beautiful pre-Great War types, which were constructed with more strings than substance we reach the French, built Spad XIII C1 S5295 (c/n 15295) wearing the markings of the famous SPA103. The VI code along the fuselage side marks this aircraft as the mount of Capitaine Rene Fonck, who was credited with at least 75 confirmed kills (52 of which were in the Spad XIII). Although predominantly French in content, aircraft from other nations are represented in this hall, including a Belgian Air Force Farman Maurice 7 (serial 15, c/n 446) and German Air Force Pfalz DXII 2690/18 (c/n 3240).

The next area to visit was L’Entre Deux-Guerres et l’Aviation Legere which covers the period from post First World War up until around 1970, but mainly concentrates on private flying. However a few "military" items are on show here including a Caudron C800 glider (334) and Morane Saulnier MS.230 (1048). But, poor layout and lighting in this hall does not bode well for photography; arm yourself with a good tripod if you intend taking decent photographs.

Les Halles des Prototypes et de L’Armee de l’Air was the highlight for me although it too suffered from cramped, though beautifully preserved, exhibits. These exhibits are almost exclusively military and cover the period from post World War II up to 1980, and they give a clear insight into France’s development as a major aircraft designer and manufacturer. Dassault Super Mystere B.2 153 (c/n 11) is displayed in the markings of EC.12 coded 12-YY. This unit is one of France’s most famous fighter squadrons and even today is regularly seen throughout Europe on detachment and exercises like ACMI, sporting the Tiger squadron markings that allow it to participate in NATO Tiger Meets. An unusual 'combat' aircraft here is a North American T-6G Texan 14915 coded RM - this aircraft (really 51-14522, c/n 182-209) wears the markings of EALA 8/7 and is one of over 18,000 Harvard/Texan examples built, many of which were used in action by the French against Algerian guerrillas.

French fancies
Mirage IIIV
Mirage IIIE

Dassault’s first major jet fighter was the MD450 Ouragon - 154 coded 4-LT is displayed here in the markings of EC.4, a unit which still exists today in the form of a Mirage 2000 wing. The beautiful Mystere IVA (289, coded 2-EY (really 105)) was a hugely successful Dassault product that first flew in September 1952, finally being withdrawn from service with EC.8 during 1982. France’s alternative to Britain’s Vertical Take Off and Landing Harrier was Dassault’s Mirage IIIV (one of around a dozen aircraft here serialled 01). This variant of the immensely successful MirageIII/V series tackled the vertical/short take off problem by having a number of lift engines fitted in addition to the normal propulsion. This 'brute force' arrangement resulted in an aircraft that could (and did) fly at over twice the speed of sound, as well as having great short-field capabilities, however it was deemed to be too complex an arrangement.

Le Hall "Concorde" is the last indoor area, and as you would expect houses a Concorde in the shape of first prototype 001. As I walked towards it I got the impression that it was closed, there being almost no illumination from the hall, but upon going through the door I was both thankful and disappointed. It was open at least, but night vision goggles would have been a useful accessory, as the only lighting appears concentrated on Concorde. This was a shame as there are a number of unusual types displayed in here, including a selection of 'Free French Air Force' World War II aircraft. Mirage IIIE 617 coded 4-BE is displayed alongside its big brother Mirage IVA in a dramatic 'take-off' pose.

Dinosaur jets by Frank Togher

Hansa Jet 16+07Outside the museum halls, a number of aircraft are displayed, mainly foreign or naval types that the French don’t mind getting wet. Also outside are a number of Mirages that appear stored, including 42, 226, 334, and 460. The main exhibits here though include a Swedish Air Force Saab J35 Draken (35069of F16) and a Swiss Air Force Hunter (J-4099 in FlSt 5 markings). The unusual forward-swept winged Luftwaffe Hansajet in VIP colours (16+07) is on show, along with another NATO stalwart of the 1960s and 70s, the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter (22+40). A fairly recent addition to the collection is a French Navy Atlantic (61) which looks in pretty good condition despite its long life skimming low through the corrosive salty air over the oceans.

The collection at Le Bourget houses by no means all the aircraft they have, a significant number of exhibits are kept elsewhere, and 'Les Reserves' are only open to the public once a year on 'les journées Du Patrimoine'. These aircraft are "rotated" in and out of Le Bourget at infrequent intervals and some of the examples present in 1988 which were absent this visit included Luftwaffe G-91R 99+39 and Jaguar prototype A04.

Overall then, a visit here is well worthwhile, with around 80 military aircraft amongst the collection, half a day and some good weather can produce a very enjoyable, and cheap, visit – I just hope you have better weather than I suffered. Further details about the collection can be obtained from the museum's comprehensive website at http://www.mae.org/.


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